Western Centuries makes country & western music the way it oughta be made. Pedal steel, driving rhythms, twangy guitars, songs about loving and losing and drinking celebrating the good things in life. This group is the current vehicle for Cahalen Morrison (formerly of Country Hammer) and his bandmates Jim Miller and Ethan Lawton, all of whom play lots of instruments and write songs and sing them, plus Rusty Blake on pedal steel and Dan Lowinger on bass, with special guest Rosie Newton fiddling on most of the 12 tracks.
On one hand, this is honky-tonk music like they made in the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s. All those elements I mentioned above – the upbeat barroom shufflers, the sad songs about heartbreak, the instrumentation – would be recognized in any honky-tonk in the land during the mid-20th century. On the other hand, it’s also quite a bit like the music made in the early years of country rock, the late ’60s and early ’70s, (New Riders of the Purple Sage, Poco, Pure Prairie League and their ilk) with a rock sensibility and lyrics that, once you give a close listen, verge on the psychedelic and hallucinatory. A lot of that is the work of Morrison, who imbues the songs he writes with a post-modern literary sensibility.
Morrison shares the songwriting and lead singing with Miller, co-founder of the alt-country jam band Donna the Buffalo, and Lawton, who’s heavily involved in the Northwest roots music scene, from Zoe Muth’s band to his own solo output. It’s all of a piece, with strong vocal and instrumental contributions from all three, on such strong numbers as “Knocking ‘Em Down,” Miller’s lonely-heart shuffle about the hazards of maintaining a relationship and living on the road; Lawton’s woozy waltzing love song to the bottle “Off The Shelf,” and the country-soul rocker that closes the album, “Rock Salt” by Morrison and Miller. I’m still not sure what this one’s about, but it might have something to do with politics, and it has a great funky groove.
My favorites, though, tend to be Morrison’s, including the ripping country swinger “What Will They Say About Us Now,” the psychedelic love song “The Old You,” and especially “Hallucinations,” about a lover he can’t get off his mind. Here’s a neat live version:
If you’re a fan of driving, swinging, rocking country that’s nevertheless literate and smart, Western Centuries’ Weight of the World should satisfy your craving. They’re on tour nearly constantly, so check out their website or Facebook for dates near you and links to where you can get this music.
(Free Dirt, 2016)